To quote my mom, “Stress is when your mind says, ‘No,’ and your mouth says, ‘I’d love to.’”
It’s one of those little pieces of parental wisdom that I long ago pocketed, and yet I still have a hard time knowing my limits, recognizing when I’ve taken on too much, and paring down the excess noise in my life. As it turns out, I’m not alone. This particular trouble is common enough to inspire instructors Katy Flatau and Hillary Johnson to design a whole Dabble class entitled, “Learn to Set Better Boundaries!” I decided that a little self-awareness couldn’t hurt, and signed up.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, this brand of dabbling is less DIY and more DIFY—Do it For Yourself. Self-care is as much a skill as candle-making or pumpkin-carving, and sometimes seems to be as niche of a talent. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget to take stock of your life, your health, and your goals.
Held in a studio in the Chicago Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, the evening began with a nerve-wracking ride up a very old elevator. The building, featured in the Chicago Architecture Open House earlier this month, is brimming with charm; due in part to antique architectural flair, and in part to neighboring rooms’ use as rehearsal space. (Meditative revelations in class were often underpinned by epiphanic singing from a voice lesson down the hall: “ahh-Ahhh!”)
This class was Katy and Hillary’s first, though both have been independently top-rated Dabble instructors. From a friendship sparked in a LinkedIn messaging thread, the two decided to partner up to bring Chicago Dabblers peace of mind. Katy runs Mindful-U, which offers a holistic wellness approach that combines meditation, yoga and life coaching to clients. Hillary founded Calm Chicago, where she teaches “Mindfulness, Compassion, and Conscious Leadership.” She also works with athletes on mental training (read: not choking on the court) and with at-risk youth on violence prevention. “What’s really interesting is that across the spectrum,” she notes, “our issues are the same.”
The most common of these issues is, at its core, decision-making. They caution against letting past negative decisions fuel assumptions about ourselves (e.g. “I’m always financially irresponsible because I spent money on X, Y and Z.”) and emphasize the distinction between reaction — immediate defensive actions — and response — carefully considered replies.
The second issue, Hillary offers, is connectedness. “We have a little bit of an evolutionary tilt toward the negative, you know, like, ‘Here comes the big Cheetah, it’s gonna eat us.” Ego, she argues, limits success: “Survival of the fittest, it’s not on an individual basis. The fit people who survive are the ones who were able to maintain a group and care for each other.
“What made the Bulls successful? Everyone, if you ask this, they say, ‘Oh Michael Jordan.’ No, Michael Jordan came, he was like a punk, big ego… and Phil Jackson took this team of stars, who all had these huge egos, and said let’s put that down, we have to work together as a team, and you really have to dissolve that ego sense.” After Jackson started incorporating meditation and visualization into their regimen, Hillary says, the mentality of the Bulls changed: “I’m not worried about how many points I get. I’m worried about, can my team win? Which is a very different thing.”
Connectedness and decision-making seem like broad ground to cover, but Katy and Hillary agree that they’ve found ways to incorporate life-long strategies into a one-time class. “It’s very much about giving people tools, because I don’t want you to depend on me, you know. You have to go fly and be free, little bird. Find your way!”
Katy agrees, “I don’t have all the answers, but I can help you figure out what might be coming up for you that you’re not recognizing… [students] get something they can go use right now, and get an insight that’s going to hit them in three or four days. And then they get a tool that they can use two weeks from now when they’re like, ‘Agghh, my boss!’”
I’m grateful to have learned these tools firsthand. Katy and Hillary make a great team; where Hillary led us through meditation exercises, Katy provided us with tactics for re-framing our day-to-day. The class helped me recognize my stressors at their source as well as my ability to conquer them. I left feeling relaxed yet alert, bearing in my backpack a list of three baby-step boundaries I would set for myself in the future.
Katy was right; days after the class, I’m still checking in with those personal boundaries when I make decisions. Self-improvement of this kind can sometimes spook the average non-yogi, but regardless of your affinity for meditation or kombucha tea, everyone merits from taking the time to exercise self-respect. Try mindfulness for yourself with the pair’s next Dabble course! You’ll never know until you take a step back, close your eyes and breathe.